One message from Results Junkie founder: Convince Purdue students to start work on businesses now and they – and their companies – might never leave

LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In a lot of ways, the past week has been business as usual at the MatchBox Co-working Studio, co-founder Michael Berger figured.

Never mind the Airstream trailer parked out front on Sixth Street and all it delivered for what had been dubbed Entrepreneurship Week.

“The stuff that happened this week,” Berger said Friday, “is stuff I’ve been trying to convince people is already happening every week in here. We just thought we’d put a banner over it all and then we’d sprinkle in this crazy guy who could tell everyone: Look you’re heading in the right direction. You’re doing the right things.”

The guy in question was the one living out of the Airstream. Paul Singh is one-half of Results Junkies, a husband-and-wife team based in Washington, D.C., that travels North America looking to invest in solid startup ideas and preaching the notion that there’s no time like the present or place like where you are right now for a business idea. (In Lafayette, he was traveling alone, with partner Dana Duncan.)

In a week of startup competitions and one-on-one advice, Singh talked up tactics of the side hustle, controlling your own narrative and letting an idea take hold in an age when recruiting a client might be easier than writing a resume. And Singh found a couple of startups worth investing in – details yet to come, due to SEC regulations.

“I put about 40,000 miles a year on this thing,” Singh said, taking a peek inside the self-contained, silver trailer emblazoned with “North American Tech Tour” and hauled behind a black Ford pickup. “It’s great. We just keep finding that people are smart and ready to go wherever we are. Part of what we’re doing is convincing people that it’s true.”

Question: So, what I’m hearing you say is that if you can’t start a business in Lafayette, going somewhere else isn’t going to help. What’s your message heading out from there?

Singh: These days, if I said, “Hey, what does it take to be an entrepreneur?” I think most people automatically assume they have to learn to code or like to write code, right? And that’s not exactly true.

Here’s an example of what entrepreneurship really means. It means let’s say you’re an accountant. You’re either in school right now or let’s just say you have a full-time job at a firm here in town. Entrepreneurship means, hey, maybe I can take a part-time bookkeeping client on the side online that’s not here in town, and I’ll do that in the evenings and weekends, and I’ll get an extra thousand bucks a month that way. That just requires having an email address and, you know, using like online billing software, you know what I mean?

Q: I guess I wasn’t thinking about coding. I always equated getting a business off the ground to a garage. Old school, I guess.

Singh: That’s what I used to think of. But you know, this is our 80th city in 18 months. … And just out there seeing things from the Airstream, driving around, it’s like people think that entrepreneurship requires huge amounts of risk and the acquisition of skills like coding, when in fact like, I just wish they would go sign up a customer on the side. …

If you want to be an entrepreneur, that does not mean risking your family’s future. What that means is, I don’t know, turning off “Game of Thrones” for one hour every night, and instead using that time to go find a client that’s going to pay you a thousand bucks a month, who happens to be down in Nashville or Atlanta or somewhere.  That’s not risky, because you’re keeping a day job.

Q: So your point is, you just need to jump in?

Singh: The point is that the barrier to entrepreneurship is extremely low. When I started my first company in the late ’90s, I mean, just accepting a credit card was a nightmare. I mean, you had to have a relationship with the bank. You had to personally guarantee the charge backs. You had to wait eight weeks from the time you swipe the card to when you got it. And now it’s fast-forward 20 years later. You can literally set that up in seconds. … And in that world, the barrier to entrepreneurship tends to be themselves, the people themselves.

Q: Do you find that people are afraid or don’t trust their ideas or think others won’t buy in?

Singh: When I started doing all this stuff, I thought that ambition would be equally distributed around the world, and that cash was not. What I’ve learned as I’ve driven around is ambition is equally distributed around the United States. Cash is easier to get – not easy, but easier to get than it used to be regardless of location.

But what’s not equally distributed around the country and frankly around the world is, the skills needed to be an entrepreneur. And again, those skills aren’t always just coding or any of that stuff. It’s really like more tactical than that. It’s how do you build a customer online? How do you create that one page email website template using tools on the internet?  Those don’t require coding. That just requires you going to whatever dot com you like and getting that practically set up for you.

Q: How about right here in Lafayette? Same story?

Singh: I’m sitting here and I’m looking at Lafayette. And you know, in the short term, what I’m sitting here thinking is, “Gosh, how do we get a hundred of the students at Purdue to make a thousand bucks a month on the side, before they even leave school?” I’m talking about with skills they’re already learning and can put to use right now. And if you could do that, I think you would be surprised at how many of those people would just stay in Lafayette.

Q: You sound confident in that.

Singh: If you think about economic development policy, not just Lafayette but across this country for the last hundred years, it’s been driven by what I would describe as a magnet philosophy. Let’s go attract some big employer. Let’s go attract some big factory. Let’s go get so-and-so to jump over here. And maybe that worked. That did work, obviously, right?

Q: It did, in a lot of ways – especially here. Subaru, so much other manufacturing plants. Even Purdue, if you want to go back to what John Purdue did way back when to get the university in West Lafayette.

Singh: OK. But I’ll say it. Lafayette’s future is not going to be correlated to the number of large firms you bring here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good that they’re coming, and it’s good that the mayor and all those people are, you know, doing it, right? But Lafayette’s future from 2017 and beyond is going to be directly correlated to its students and its adults learning how to use technology to get their clients or to get their customers. …

We have a pretty large data set of early-stage companies and what happens with them over time. And what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is that once a company gets to seven employees, they won’t move again. They won’t even move across the street. They’re more likely to go up or down the elevator shaft in whatever building they’re in if they have to expand.

Q: So just seven employees locks a company down? That’s what you’re finding?

Singh: What we found in our portfolio is, they’ll stay. And so when I think about it and I’m looking at a place like Lafayette, most of the cities we’ve been to would kill to have a school that brings that many people here. And gosh, if we could teach those kids how to make a thousand bucks a month on the side? In the worst case, those kids are spending a thousand bucks, probably on something in the city.

What happens is, as they grow, they’re going to hire people and frankly, once they get to a certain point, they’re not going anywhere.

Q: OK, so you’ve seen the town and you’ve been to Purdue and all the rest of it. How much of this comes down to livability, if we’re going to attract more startups? And how is this place doing?

Singh: Lifestyle has never been more important to people. And I know that sounds like a cliché statement, but even in our portfolio, what we’re seeing is every month without fail is that there is a steady stream of like 10 to 15 employees somewhere in our portfolio moving home to be closer to where they grew up, and working remotely at the company.

Q: You seem to have found a niche in this.

Singh: Here’s what’s going to happen, by the way. In 10 years, some super-smart academic person at one of these universities is going to look back at what we’re all talking about here, and they’re going to give it some fancy name and write some 80-page research paper on it, and then like it’ll be stuck in some IP transfer office somewhere. But here we are in 2017, guys sitting in a room, talking about, you know, what’s happening because we can see it from here. We can see it from here, right?

Q: When you leave here, and somebody says, “Yeah, I think I’m going to stop by Lafayette,” what will you tell them.

Singh: I would say that the downtown sector is so walkable. I love that. Every morning, I’d be kind of getting up and going for a run and so, you know, running down the Heritage Trail was beautiful, just along the water. I can see why people live here. … It’s kind of cool to be in a city that it seems walkable, safe and you can just have smart conversations with random people. And maybe that’s a function of like, you know, Midwest nice thing, but it’s also kind of a function of having a research university here, big employers here, and entrepreneurial stuff happening. So yeah, I mean, I get the appeal.

Q: So, not a bad week, then?

Singh: One of the people I met at the first event on Monday when we kicked off said, “Hey, Paul, thanks for coming, and thanks for putting Lafayette on the map.” And what I said in response to that was, “Look, Lafayette’s already on the map. All we’re here to do is to try to shed the spotlight on what’s happening. So it’s really got everything. If you can’t build a company here, moving someplace else isn’t going to help you.

Reach J&C columnist Dave Bangert at 765-420-5258 or at dbangert@gannett.com.

 

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